Forty percent of U.S. Bureau of Prisons corrections staff report being sexually harassed by an inmate since being employed by the agency, its watchdog found in an anonymous survey of some 7,000 workers.

Congressional inquiries, lawsuits and media reports have spotlighted concerns by corrections staff, particularly female officers, of unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances by inmates. Last month, Federal Times reported that a federal labor union counted more than 300 incidents in 2022 of those incarcerated allegedly exposing themselves or engaging in sexual acts in front of staff at a high-security prison in Illinois.

“We were able to determine that inmate-on-staff sexual harassment occurs across BOP institutions and that BOP staff believe that it particularly affects women,” said the Department of Justice inspector general report, noting that its study was hindered somewhat by inadequate data on cases.

The problem has been limitedly addressed, the report said, in part because the agency doesn’t have clear data on who the victims are, whether staff or inmate, and what specific type of violating behavior was reported. In the meantime, employees are reporting hostile working conditions that may drive them to quit or take leave without pay.

That translates to costs for the BOP when it has to interview, hire and train a new employee to backfill openings left by exasperated employees or pay overtime at understaffed facilities, the report said.

Local union leadership representing workers at USP Thomson said harassment incidents led at least some of the more than 125 staff who left last year to quit their jobs, exacerbating already low staffing levels.

Jon Zumkehr, who represents federal corrections workers as president of a local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees said that though this problem is widespread, it should not be normalized as part of the job.

“Management must protect the staff, and they have failed,” he said in an interview.

Zumkehr said he’s glad attention is being paid to the issue by the Department of Justice. The recommendations being made by the inspector general are needed, he said, but “the director has to enforce it.”

“If we’re not holding the managers accountable that fail, and not holding them accountable to the current policies we have in place, what makes you think they’re going to follow this guidance?,” Zumkehr said. “The staff are the ones that suffer.”

The Merit Systems Protection Board, the guardian agency of employee rights, warned in its own findings that “for employees who experience it, sexual harassment takes its toll in the form of mental and emotional stress and even loss of income.”

“I really believe all these issues that the Bureau is having, including the inmate harassment toward staff, are directly related to the lack of staffing,” said Brian Mueller, AFGE’s North Central regional vice president, in an interview.

Correctional officers also work more overtime on average than any other BOP position, a separate inspector general report found. Prison staff make up up almost half of all BOP positions and account for approximately 70% of the overtime hours and costs.

Across its more than 100 facilities, overtime usage is concentrated on the time cards of a select few instead of being distributed uniformly across the bureau, the OIG found.

Part of the challenge with stopping harassment of correction staff is that, in such a sprawling network of facilities and staff, methods vary for reporting and handling misconduct.

For example, prior to 2018, incident reporting and discipline began with staff filing a report with a facility lieutenant. BOP policy states that the lieutenant then enters the information into SENTRY, a database storing inmate information.

Interviews with staff conducted by the Office of Inspector General revealed that lieutenants sometimes bypassed SENTRY and resolved incidents informally, which is encouraged for less severe violations.

“We believe that when data at the institution level is unreliable, inconsistent, and contains discrepancies it can lead to an unreliable accounting of inmate-on-staff sexual harassment incidents by the BOP’s Central Office,” the report said.

Then, in October 2018, the agency transitioned to a new reporting system called DARTS that “increased the transparency of the incident reporting system because staff who submit the incident reports can see where the report is at any stage of the process,” said a staff member who was interviewed.

Still, program statements and policies are not fully up-to-date to reflect the new process, the inspector general found, which could lead to confusion for employees about how to go about reporting incidents.

In terms of the best way to deter future incidents, staff interviewed in the report agreed that prosecution for criminal sexual misconduct or registration as a sex offender is the most effective consequence because “no inmate wants to explain to his or her family that, although he or she entered prison as a robber, for example, he or she is leaving as a sex offender,” one warden said, according to the report.

Doing that hinges in part on relationships with other law enforcement bodies in charge of escalating reports to prosecution. The BOP refers criminal allegations to the FBI, which then refers the case to the U.S Attorneys Office. But like overtime use, strong relationships with these sibling agencies are not uniform across BOP, the report found.

Many forms of inmate-on-staff sexual harassment violate state but not federal criminal law, which Zumkehr highlighted as another issue in need of lawmakers’ attention in addition to the agency’s.

BOP agreed as part of the report to conduct regular risk assessments of harassment cases with a particular focus on impacts on female staff members. It also said its regulatory language is being updated that will affect inmate discipline.

In its response to an emailed request for comment by Federal Times on immediate steps it was taking to mitigate risks for employees, the agency pointed to resources including training courses, the authority employees have to impose sanctions on inmates who violate rules, intake screening of high-risk inmates and treatment programs for them.

The agency reiterated that its employees’ safety and well-being are top priority.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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